A twisted take on the happy ending
This film is about doing the right thing. When you're unwittingly entangled in a family of drug-fuelled, fiercely loyal criminals, as 17 year old Josh finds himself, then doing the right thing is not so clear cut. Throughout the film, as the story unfolds and the drama reaches crescendo after crescendo of shocking, breath-taking acts of revenge and criminal psychoticism, the audience is torn between nervous laughter and tears of despair for the futility of any attempt at escape or moral reasoning.
The stars of Animal Kingdom are the uncles - too stupid and cocaine-adled to break free of their mother's grip, the family matriarch, and the life of crime that is becoming increasingly hard to keep up in Melbourne, Australia. They're clever enough to know, however, that family disloyalty isn't an option, as Josh discovers when he is thrown into this new world of mafia-styled bullies and firearms. Still reeling from his own messed up past, Josh quietly and inconspicuously slips into daily life with the family. The actor Frecheville cleverly lets the audience glimpse his desire for approval, kind words, and normality - in whatever form they might take. This is Josh's downfall but ultimately also his trump card.
Trust is a clear theme throughout. There is no room for naiveity though. The film forces the audience to constantly reassess which side to take, to decide how a happy ending might look, and to accept horrific acts as the norm in this alternative universe. From a cosy middle-class cinema lounge, it is difficult to reconcile the overbearing and affectionate mother figure with the heartless and calculating head of the family that she really is. It makes for gripping but uncomfortable viewing for those who have any hold on the reality of drugs, violence and finding onself at rock bottom simply for trusting, loving or trying to do the right thing.
Many times during the family's battle with the local police force - a blurred line between good and evil in itself - a happy ending is within sight, to be snatched away as the power struggle shifts once again. Even as a conclusion to the story is being reached, the audience is left wondering for what reason the family must win so vehemently - is it really family loyalty that drives them or do they just enjoy hurting people, including themselves? Mentally ill Pope, an uncle on the run, reveals the harsh reality with such extremity that it is very difficult to respect or even believe that his psychological state is to blame. However one decides to feel about Pope's motivations, his menace is so well acted that the audience builds up a strong disgust and hate for the character.
The best quality of the film is its ability to draw the audience in from the first scene and then to spit it out at the last with enough finality to breathe a sigh of relief but leaving room for the viewer to draw its own conclusions. I got my happy ending - but it took some searching.